R.I.T.E.S.! Loo Zihan does a Josef Ng! And then some!

By: Mayo Martin

If last night’s Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak session is anything to go by, audiences at the performance art festival Future Of Imagination 7 — which kicks off later tonight and runs until Sunday – will be assured of some pretty interesting, riveting stuff.

Shoes and socks were thrown around, some whacking courtesy of a palm branch, and a body bruised in a “triple-bill” that took the impressively sizeable audience at Goodman Arts Centre on an emotional rollercoaster ride within a brief span of time.

The first two, Gisela Hochuli and Francis O’Shaughnessy, are also participating in FOI7, while Loo Zihan presented a Josef Ng “reenactment” that served as a kind of teaser to his Singapore Fringe Fest performance next year.

A concise study on relational improvisation, Switzerland-based Hochuli’s performance saw her interacting with a single palm branch. In her slow, methodical interrogation of her object of choice, Hochuli lay down beside it, covered herself with it like a blanket, scrutinised it as she crouched, swept the floor with it, carried it in her mouth. In the silence of the room, each action becomes almost meditative; the rustling of the leaves evoking the gentle sound of waves by the beach.

And then she thrashes the darn branch with surprising viciousness. Whipping it around and against the floor in a frenzy. The contrast is shocking to say the least.

And if that wasn’t enough, she ends up by throwing in a bit of whimsy, sticking the branch between her legs like a tail and walks out. Wink wink.

Meanwhile, Canada-based O’Shaughnessy’s funny, absurdist piece played on the act of performance itself and the baggage of audience expectation, literally through the magic that binds these together.

“It could look like that, but it was not like that,” he remarks mid-way through the performance, as he recounts a chance encounter with someone who – at least from what I could understand (he was eating his words and mumbling most of the time) – showed them a trick of turning water into a chocolate drink.

O’Shaughnessy puts on the half-baked airs of a magician as he arranged his materials before us – paper bags, a pitcher of water, gloves, red tape on the floor. That he does not mention his intent until halfway through – even as he plays up this act of arrangement to the minutest detail as if he knows exactly what he’s doing even as we totally no idea what the hell’s going on as he inspected everyone’s palms – heightened both our curiosity and sense of amusement.

Shoes off and put to one side, ditto socks on the other, throwing them around (in some cases hitting some audience members who weren’t particularly happy), waving his hand chanting about putting his hands into the bag and pulling out nothing one moment, a doll’s hand and head the next – it’s an extremely complicated performance for one underwhelming moment of non-magic that, to me, underscores its very absurdity. (Although some would argue that, unlike Hochuli’s piece, this one overstayed its welcome as it started to lose steam near the end.)

Finally, Loo’s re-enactment of Ng’s Don’t Go Swimming, It’s Not Safe based on an account by Ray Langenbach of the 1993 performance at the old NAFA gallery during the 2nd Sculpture Symposium Seminar.

In actual fact, it’s a re-enactment of an account of the performance, which Loo handed out beforehand. For the most part (and as live performances go) version 2.0 sticks to the script, from the setting (a semi-circle) to the sequence of events that surrounded the original performance against gay bashing. Just as Ng whispered “Don’t go swimming, it’s not safe” (referencing gay cruising at Tanjung Rhu beach) to audience members that pass it on, or proclaimed “I am guilty of acts due to (sic) public disturbance, but I am not shameful”, so does Loo.

In the original, Ng goes around handing a violin to audience members asking them to hit him – and slamming himself violently against the venue wall when they don’t. Someone smashes the violin. Someone hits him. Someone doesn’t so Ng slams himself against the wall. Tension, according to Langenbach, builds to the point when two people try to restrain Ng and a third one runs over and kicks him hard. There’s a fight. Chaos all around.

Loo enlisted audience members to play certain roles, resulting in this surreal mix of spontaneous reactions and scripted acts that results in a kind of hybrid – it is both Ng’s work and Loo’s (who, in the end, is reduced to tears and visibly emotionally spent).

For all the distance that a re-enactment (of an account) offers, it was still a disturbing sight for so many reasons. Completely aware that the performance was staged, the audience was, for the most part, passive. The aforementioned confusion that this spontaneous-but-not moment presented disrupted one’s attitude towards the spectacle. Even as one knew the whole thing was “fake”, the energy, the violence, and the sight of Loo slamming himself against the wall was real. How do you react?

At some point, a rather smart aleck audience member decided to hit Loo gently enough so that he wouldn’t run against the wall again, smugly commenting that he could go on the whole night. Completely nullifying the terrifying dichotomy of Loo’s actions.

It’s in contrast with the 1993 performance where everything was spontaneous, the shock of the audience authentic and the violence spilling everywhere. It was, as Lee Wen described afterwards to me, an “innocent audience”. Loo’s audience was somewhat tainted by some kind of cynicism. The performance was both visceral and objectified.

Here’s the thing. For a fleeting moment, I actually wanted the audience to be like the ones back in 1993, the ones that, in their “innocence” was caught up in the vicious moment the way we were not. Back when Ng was slamming himself against the wall (more ruthlessly than Loo, according to those who had seen it) and was getting beaten up not for a re-enactment but for an enactment.

Then I shuddered at my own cruel thought.

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This review article was originally published in For Art's Sake! - an art blog by Mayo Martin.

 

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